Community rally challenges public housing leadership after heat issues

RICHMOND, Va. -- Community activists held a rally Monday night outside the headquarters of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which manages nearly 4,000 units through the public housing program and provides subsidized housing assistance to over 3,000 families.

Folks are calling for the head of RRHA, T.K .Somanath, to be removed and for the housing agency to move forward in a new direction.

The protest was spearheaded in part by the lack of heat in numerous units, during a long stretch of historically cold temperatures in the metro-area.

The CBS 6 Problem Solvers first brought this situation to light one week ago when we interviewed a man who said he has not had heat at Creighton Court for six years.

“It’s no secret that Richmond housing development is a place where problems occur on the regular it seems like,” said community activist Maurice Tyler, who was handing out blankets to help keep people warm. “It’s time for us to address those problems the buck stops here.”

Last week, CBS6 learned that more than 50 units in Creighton Court did not have working heat systems, and residents were relying on space heaters. And back in November, we reported that residents in Gilpin Court did not have heat that worked.

City Council woman Kim Gray said those aren’t the only examples of problems with heat in RRHA.

“We’re hearing other occurrences of inadequate heat in other public housing within the city,” Gray said.

Gray said City Council is doing everything it can to resolve the situation. Council appoints the board that oversees RRHA, who hired the chief executive.

Gray said she hoped the board starts posing some serious question to Somanath, because she heard RRHA knew about the heating problems for a while, but put off the repairs.

“The board needs to know what was known and when and whether appropriate action had been taken by the director,” Gray said.

"Look around you, we've got people in the housing development that are in trouble with the heat- look how we turned out- look how we came together!" Tyler said.

"What am I paying for?  This is mine!" said Sha'randa Taylor, an upset Creighton Court resident who pays $800 dollars a month in rent, but can no longer live with her three young children in her apartment.

"The apartment isn't made for safety,” she said. “It's not made to hold heat.”

She said the door in her apartment is roughly two inches above the ground, allowing air to flow in.

“On top of it being cold- to give out one or two space heaters that's not enough,” she said.

Activists said the heating problems are a breaking point for several families, who are also tired of escalating crime and feeling trapped in their communities.

"In one of the apartments back here on Paul Street,  there's a young lady, she works three jobs and she has four kids under the age of 10,” said Chris Lane with Guardians and Love Of Life Fellowship. “She doesn't have a vehicle so finding employment outside of walking distance is a struggle for her."

As people sang out for “this little light to shine,” many also hope for people to speak out and invoke change – and to get answers that from the RRHA.

“They want 800 dollars and I can't even go into my home- I don't feel safe,” Taylor said. “I have no comfort for 800 dollars."

CBS 6 has repeatedly asked RRHA  when they first learned about the heat issue in Creighton, but all they’ve said so far is they turned it off in October because the ceiling risked collapsing from leaking pipes.

While Tyler said he believes this incident shows a need for new leadership, Mayor Levar Stoney said it’s easy to point fingers, but finding solutions is the challenge.

“That’s what the leadership at RRHA have to work on, they have to focus on the fix, how are they going to fix these problems,” Stoney said.

He also said he was on the phone all weekend with RRHA board members, and has a meeting scheduled with Somanath later this week.

We requested an interview with someone at RRHA, but we haven’t heard back yet.

In a statement sent last week, RRHA said the aging public housing has more than $150 million worth of Capital beds, and it doesn’t receive nearly enough money to address them.